NCF Nation: Marcus Sales

Big East mailblog

December, 21, 2012
12/21/12
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Let's take a glance into the mailbag before we celebrate the holiday.

Chris Snow in Portland, Ind., writes: Would it be smart if the Big East continues down the path of where they are going, which is obscurity, that USF do what BYU did? Leave the conference and schedule games with all the big boys and try to impress conferences that way. I would sacrifice two or three seasons of conference play, put a schedule like Notre Dame has together, and hope that a big-five conference takes notice and adds me. What say you?

Andrea Adelson: I say -- how are you going to make money off a television deal? I hear a lot of folks wondering about whether their school should go independent. I've heard it from Boise State fans as well. BYU is a national school with its own television network, and it was able to secure its own TV deal with ESPN. USF? Boise State? The chances that they can negotiate TV deals of their own is exceptionally remote. So USF has to stick it out in the Big East and then see where conference realignment takes it.




Doug in Middletown, Conn., writes: Hi Andrea, what are your thoughts on UConn and the Big Ten? Why was Rutgers more attractive to the Big Ten then UConn?

Adelson: Bottom line: television market. The Big Ten targeted markets with large populations and large bases of Big Ten alumni. Rutgers (New York) and Maryland (Baltimore/Washington D.C.) fit the bill more than Connecticut.




Scott in Annapolis, Md., writes: With Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Geno Smith playing in their last game together, I look for the Mountaineers to go out big on this one. I know WVU's defense stinks (especially the cornerbacks), but if WVU's offense is firing on all cylinders, Cuse doesn't stand a chance. Just ask Clemson. Orange juice anyone?? WVU 55, Cuse 24.

Adelson: You just said West Virginia's defense stinks. So how exactly are these stinky cornerbacks (your words!) going to stop Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales and Ryan Nassib? Syracuse has a way better defense than Clemson -- you should be well aware of that. I will make my pick next week, but I have a hard time believing Syracuse only scores 24 points. Just won't happen.




John in Louisville writes: AA, I am confused how the Catholic schools saying they are leaving has any effect on the football teams, other than money in TV revenue. Everyone is saying that the BE could lose its BCS bid next year and I was hoping you could explain that talk to me.

Adelson: I am as confused as you are, to be honest. Before these hoops schools broke away, I was told repeatedly the Big East would remain an automatic qualifying conference in 2013. So I am not sure why that changes when NON-FOOTBALL-PLAYING schools leave. Perhaps there is a fear the entire Big East will fall apart. My bet is nothing happens to the automatic bid for next year. Now, if football schools begin to depart en masse, that could change.




Chris Columbo in New York writes: One of the big issues Cincinnati has is lack of fan support. Not being able to sell out a small and unique on-campus stadium such as Nippert when they are doing so well is a sign of weakness on many levels. I actually think they are making a mistake by expanding the facility. The money could be put to much better use by expanding their endowment and getting a higher quality of kids to attend the school. More prestigious school equals more fans as people want to be associated with winning on and off the field. I am originally from East Lansing (Michigan State) and went to school at Wisconsin. We would regularly have 70,000 people at games even when both teams were losing. Actually in Wisconsin's case, they were selling out games when they had 1-10 seasons. The reason was people wanted to be associated with the schools. For Cincinnati to have the kind of success it wants to have, the games have to be a kind of see-and-be-seen type of event. Nippert is like Wrigley Field. No one cares if the Cubs win but people go to the games for all the other social reasons.

Adelson: You bring up an excellent point. Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock was asked during his press conference earlier this week about the school's inability to sell out games. Rather than criticize fans, he essentially said the success was all relatively new for the program and he believes Cincinnati will get to a point where it can sell out games. The expansion, however, has more to do with making itself more attractive to another conference should an opportunity arise in realignment. Cincinnati has one of the smallest stadiums of any program currently in an AQ conference. Only Wake Forest and Duke have smaller capacities. Putting in more suites and club boxes brings added revenue streams and can help Cincinnati financially. So selling out games at this point is icing on the cake. The goal is to bump up capacity while bringing in more cash with suites, boxes and naming-rights opportunities.


Greetings from the Carrier Dome

November, 10, 2012
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Hello from the Carrier Dome, where most everybody expects No. 9 Louisville to face a tough challenge from Syracuse.

One of the big themes this week has been how much better Syracuse has played at home -- going 3-1 in the Dome this season. Its only loss here was in the opener against Northwestern, a heartbreaking 42-41 decision that was decided in the closing minutes.

But here is another point to remember: Louisville has done well on the road this season, going 3-0 away from home. More than that, the Cardinals have won six straight regular-season road games dating to last season. Now, none of that is to say the Cardinals are going to have a cakewalk. Those who have paid close attention know Louisville has had its share of road drama this season, needing second-half comebacks to beat Southern Miss and Pitt.

In fact, Louisville has fallen behind in all three of its road games this season, getting outscored 52-43 in the first half. But pay particular attention to the third quarter: Louisville has shut out its opposition 31-0 in that period in its three road games. For some of its warts, this Louisville team is one that simply never quits.

You can definitely bet Syracuse will not be intimidated facing one of the top-ranked teams in the nation. Back in Week 2, the Orange took No. 2 USC down to the wire, playing with the Trojans for three quarters before ultimately losing 42-29. I mentioned the loss to No. 24 Northwestern. And they also hung with then-No. 20 Rutgers a few weeks ago, before losing 23-15.

Plus, there is plenty on the line for the Orange. A win allows them to keep their bowl hopes alive. If they lose, they would need to beat both Missouri and Temple to become bowl-eligible. This is also senior day, so that could be an extra source of motivation. Ryan Nassib has had huge games in the Dome, and this is his final performance at home, along with starters Zack Chibane, Siriki Diabate, Alec Lemon, Deon Goggins, Marcus Sales, Brandon Sharpe and Shamarko Thomas.
Syracuse pulled off an improbable comeback in Tampa on Saturday night, overcoming a 20-point halftime deficit and nine-point fourth-quarter deficit to win 37-36, dealing USF yet another heartbreaking loss.

The Orange, down 23-3 at halftime, showed incredible resilience once the second half resumed. They scored 21 unanswered points -- 14 of them off USF mistakes (blocked field goal and fumble). Then, they withstood a scoring flurry from USF as the Bulls took a 33-24 lead with 10:43 remaining.

Trailing 36-31, Syracuse got the ball with 1:23 remaining. The Orange had no timeouts and had to drive 75 yards. And they did just that, as Ryan Nassib hit Alec Lemon for the 1-yard touchdown pass with 3 seconds remaining. The Orange did not play their best game, particularly on run defense.

After giving up 212 total rushing yards in the last four games -- including minus-6 to UConn last week -- Syracuse gave up 369 yards to the Bulls. Both Lindsey Lamar and B.J. Daniels -- who has been a thorn in Syracuse's side throughout his career -- each went over 100 yards on the ground. It was the first time USF had two 100-yard runners since 2007.

They were a big reason why USF put itself in position to win the game.

But the Bulls have a major problem holding onto leads in the fourth quarter. They lost on a last-minute scoring drive for the second straight week, dropping those two games by a combined three points. In fact, they have lost three games this year with the final possession on the line, if you count Ball State. The heartbreaking losses go back to last season as well.

You have to wonder how much one team can take. USF (2-6, 0-4) has lost six straight now after letting another game slip from its grasp.

As for the Orange (4-4, 3-1), this team has won three of their past four games and is moving into position to try and become bowl eligible. The remaining four games are tough (at Cincinnati, Louisville, at Missouri at Temple) but perhaps the Orange can pull off an upset to get to six victories.

Nassib finished 27-of-40 for 328 yards with four touchdowns. Jerome Smith notched his second straight 100-yard rushing game, with 127 yards on 28 carries. And Marcus Sales had a terrific game, with nine catches for 125 yards and two scores.

Lost in the loss, Daniels went over 10,000 career yards of total offense.

Minnesota 4-0 after holding off Syracuse

September, 22, 2012
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Look out for Minnesota. The Gophers are 4-0 for the first time since 2008 after an impressive 17-10 victory over Syracuse at home. Here's how it happened:

It was over when: Minnesota recovered Syracuse's onsides kick attempt with 45 seconds left, allowing the Gophers to get into the victory formation. A last-chance Orange rally resulted in a touchdown pass in the final minute, but it wasn't enough.

Game ball goes to: The Gophers' D. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib came into the game as the second-leading passer in the FBS. Minnesota limited him to just 228 yards through the air, and much of that came on the final drive. Credit every level of the defense for the effort, as the front four led by D.L. Wilhite and Ra'Shede Hageman got tremendous pressure, and the secondary stayed glued to standout Orange receiver Marcus Sales, whose only two catches of the game came in the final two minutes. Aaron Hill also intercepted Nassib's pass at the Minnesota 3-yard line early in the third quarter.

Stat of the game: Turnover margin. Syracuse turned the ball over four times, including a pair of interceptions, while Minnesota didn't cough it up a single time. That was the difference in a game where the Orange outgained the Gophers 350-337.

How the game was won: This one wasn't actually as close as the final score indicates. Minnesota missed a pair of field goals after driving into the Syracuse red zone and had a touchdown pass wiped out by a penalty. But the Gophers didn't pay for leaving all those points on the field because of their outstanding defensive effort. Quarterback Max Shortell, starting for the injured MarQueis Gray, managed the game well, completing 16 of 30 passes for 231 yards, and Donnell Kirkwood ran for 99 yards and both Minnesota touchdowns.

What Minnesota learned: This was the best team the Gophers have played this season, and they won again. Minnesota already has more wins than it did a year ago and has won five straight dating back to last season. Jerry Kill's team now looks like a good bet to make it to a bowl game, and it has learned how to win some close games. The Gophers are no longer an easy out in the Big Ten.

What Syracuse learned: It was another tough loss for the 1-3 Orange, who lost a heartbreaker to Northwestern and hung tough against USC. Syracuse needs to get more from its offense when the passing game isn't lights out; the rushing game accounted for 122 yards but only 3.7 yards per carry. The Orange must get off the mat and get ready for Big East play on Friday against Pitt at home.

Big East predictions: Week 4

September, 20, 2012
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Given my track record over the first three weeks, pencil in two losses on these picks. I am 14-6 headed into Saturday. Ho hum.

UConn at Western Michigan, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN3. The Huskies and Broncos got into a wild shootout last season in Connecticut. Western Michigan pulled off the upset victory behind quarterback Alex Carder, who threw for 479 yards and five touchdown passes. Carder is back, but he is without his top playmaker from last season, Jordan White. UConn, meanwhile, has not been able to do much on offense. The Huskies have scored twice on punt returns and once on an interception return this season, but do not yet have a touchdown pass. The defense will be relied on once again to win this game. UConn 23, Western Michigan 17.

Gardner-Webb at Pitt, 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. Pitt plays its second Football Championship Subdivision opponent of the season and can only hope things go better this time around, after losing the opener to Youngstown State. The Panthers should go into this game with major confidence after upsetting Virginia Tech last week, but the last thing coach Paul Chryst needs is this team getting ahead of itself. That is what spells trouble. He needs to see continued development from Tino Sunseri and both his offensive and defensive lines, which made major strides last week. Pitt 38, Gardner-Webb 3.

Temple at Penn State, 3:30 p.m., ABC/ESPN2. The Owls nearly pulled the upset last season, losing 14-10 after Penn State scored with 2:42 remaining. But this game seems to provide Temple its best shot yet at beating the Nittany Lions for the first time since 1941. Penn State is a team that has been left depleted because of sanctions leveled as a result of an unthinkable sexual-abuse scandal, and just picked up its first victory of the season last week. Temple did get the extra week to prepare, so here's hoping the Owls straightened out their turnover and penalty problems. But are Montel Harris and Matt Brown 100 percent? Reports say yes. They need to be at their best to pull the upset. I just think Penn State has enough on defense to slow this team down. Penn State 20, Temple 17.

USF at Ball State, 4:30 p.m., Big East Network. The Bulls are in desperate need of a bounce-back win and have to go on the road to get it. The biggest question in this one: Can USF play better up front along the offensive and defensive lines? Both groups did not play up to their capabilities last week against Rutgers. Ball State likes to spread the ball around and has run for more than 200 yards in each of its first three games. I think USF will win, but this is not going to be an easy one. USF 30, Ball State 20.

Rutgers at Arkansas, 7 p.m., ESPNU. I started changing my mind on this game this past Saturday, after I saw the train wreck that is Arkansas football right now. Rutgers has looked great on defense, so-so on offense and terrible with penalties, but at least this is one unified team playing behind its coach. Not sure what is going on in Fayetteville. Bottom line for me: If Tyler Wilson plays, Arkansas wins. I think he has the capability of making plays against the Rutgers secondary, undersized compared to the Arkansas receivers. If he does not play, Arkansas has nothing in the way of offense. As I write this today, it does not look good for Wilson. So I think Rutgers will rely heavily on Jawan Jamison and the D to pull the ... Upset! Rutgers 23, Arkansas 17.

No. 20 Louisville at Florida International, 7 p.m., ESPN3. Louisville lost at home to FIU last season, but the chances of the Cardinals dropping two straight to this team are pretty remote. Teddy Bridgewater is playing incredibly well for Louisville right now, the run game is working better than at any point last season and FIU no longer has T.Y. Hilton, the man who scorched the defense a year ago. Louisville 38, FIU 17.

Syracuse at Minnesota, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network. The Orange hit the road to play another team from an automatic-qualifying conference in Minnesota, off to a surprising 3-0 start. Minnesota will be without starting quarterback MarQueis Gray and rely on Max Shortell as the starter in this one. Shortell is not nearly the running threat Gray is, so that could be an advantage for Syracuse. As is having quarterback Ryan Nassib, who has thrown for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns. Marcus Sales is having an outstanding year as well. Syracuse 33, Minnesota 27.

Syracuse outlasts Stony Brook

September, 15, 2012
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There was not much for Syracuse to brag about after its 28-17 win over Stony Brook, but at least the Orange picked up their first victory of the season after tough losses to Northwestern and USC.

This team may have been feeling the effects of playing No. 2 USC down to the wire last week. The Orange came out flat and uninspired. The offensive fireworks of the first two weeks were missing for most of the game, although Syracuse did end up with 549 total yards. Meanwhile, the defense struggled to contain Stony Brook on offense and there were several costly special-teams mistakes, including two missed field goals by Ross Krautman.

The result: Stony Brook led 17-14 at halftime. But the Orange were able to generate enough in the second half to pull out the win, though there was some cause for concern. Twice in the second half, Syracuse faced fourth-and-goal -- once from the Stony Brook 3 and once from the Stony Brook 1 -- and decided to go for it. Both times, the Orange failed to punch the ball in.

Despite those failures, Jerome Smith had a career day, with 95 yards rushing. Ryan Nassib also had his third consecutive 300-yard game, going 22-of-35 for for 335 yards with three touchdown passes. His two second-half touchdowns came in the third quarter. The first, to Jarrod West, gave Syracuse the lead for good. He added another to Marcus Sales, who ended up with 117 yards on five receptions.

Offensive production: Receiver

March, 19, 2012
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The best receivers from the Big East last season are gone. Mohamed Sanu, to the NFL. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, to the Big 12.

Much like the quarterback position, the title of best receiver in the Big East is there for the taking in 2012.

Here is a quick glance at who returns as the most productive wideout in the league:

[+] EnlargeAlec Lemon
Richard Mackson/US PresswireAlec Lemon is the Big East's top returning receiver.
Alec Lemon, Syracuse. If you saw my earlier post, then you also know Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib returns as the most productive at his position as well.

Lemon had a career year in 2011, with 68 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns. All three stats are tops among returning receivers in the league. Who else returns among the top 10 statistical receivers in 2011?
Yes, that means only three of the top 10 receivers in the league return to their respective teams.

This is among the most wide-open positions headed into spring practice. Not because there is inexperience. In fact, a lot of veteran players return, guys such as Mike Shanahan, Sterling Griffin, Michaelee Harris. Marcus Sales is back for the Orange as well.

But as noted above, many of these players now have the opportunity to become the best in the league. Players we have waited on to blossom perhaps have opportunities now -- players such as Mark Harrison and Brandon Coleman at Rutgers, for example.

I will have more on the receivers as a whole in my spring video series looking at positions across the Big East later week, including players I believe have a great opportunity to emerge this season.
Syracuse receiver Marcus Sales is back on the football team, coach Doug Marrone said Friday.

Sales was suspended for all of 2011 after he was arrested last summer on multiple drug charges. But those charges were dropped last October, paving the way for his return.

"He's on the football team. He's enrolled in school with no issues in school so there's no issues with being a part of the program," Marrone said.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Sales
AP Photo/Steve NesiusThe last time Marcus Sales was in a Syracuse jersey, he had three TDs in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.
This is a big boost for the Orange going into spring practice, which begins March 20. Syracuse will be without leading returning receiver Alec Lemon, along with several other key players in the pass game -- Van Chew, Nick Provo and Dorian Graham. It also is important for Sales to start working himself back into game shape, since he has been out for an entire year. The last time we saw him, he had a monster game against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl, where he had five catches for 172 yards and three touchdowns.

Marrone made his comments during a news conference to discuss the addition of Missouri to the 2012 schedule. The biggest reason why the Orange are playing the Tigers is because Marrone refused to play two FCS schools in one season. The first option was to play the best team possible at home. Marrone said discussions with several undisclosed teams broke down because they didn't want to play in the Carrier Dome.

So the next option was to play the best opponent possible, even if it meant traveling.

"What's frustrating about that situation is when you have a team that says we don't want to play you in the Dome," Marrone said. "I can't say for a fact, but I know some of the thought process for two of the schools was it goes back to (last year's Friday night game against) West Virginia. ... Everyone wondering what's the magic dust we sprinkle out for that one night. When I tell you the phone calls and the conversations and the meetings that took place to get the best team we could in here, it took a lot of time. ...

"The philosophy was we're going to go out and get the best team to come in here and if not, then we're going to play the best team we can play. That was our thought process going into it."

Marrone stressed he was involved in the negotiations and endorsed the schedule, even though it makes the challenge of 2012 more difficult. He was asked whether it would have made things easier on him and his team to have a second game against an FCS opponent.

"When you look back and you look at the program, I can only talk about it from a personal standpoint from when I first arrived here and the teams we had to play," Marrone said. "I said, 'Let's get the best team we can to come in here and play.' Strategically, when you look at schedules, could you last longer maybe, can you try to schedule it up and try to match things up where your talent level is better, is that going to make your career last a little longer? I understand, winning is the most important thing and right now that's what our focus is on. We have to win enough games so they don't get tired of the cliches. I don't think I've ever stood up here and made excuses. We have to win. I like the schedule. It forces this program to get better, and to see what the weaknesses are throughout the season."

Big East recruiting needs

January, 23, 2012
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National signing day is inching ever closer, so it is time to take a look at the biggest recruiting needs for every team in the Big East.

Cincinnati

Defensive line. Cincinnati loses a host of seniors from this position, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe, John Hughes, Monte Taylor, and Rob Trigg. Factor in the key contributors for 2012 will be seniors in Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and Walter Stewart and it is time to reload at this position.

Receiver. There is some promising young talent on the roster, but several guys are going to be leaving in the next few years. The Bearcats really need a guy who can stretch the field and make some big plays to join Anthony McClung and Alex Chisum.

Secondary. The Bearcats are going to take a hit at this position after 2012, losing a ton of seniors-to-be, including Cam Cheatham, Drew Frey, Dominique Battle and Reuben Johnson. Senior safety Wesley Richardson is already gone. The lone four-star commitment the Bearcats have is from a safety, Marcus Foster.

UConn

Quarterback. This need has been addressed in this recruiting cycle, with junior college transfer Chandler Whitmer and Casey Cochran already enrolled in school.

Tight end. With the impending departure of Ryan Griffin and John Delahunt, the Huskies could use another young player to be groomed to take over. Tight end is a critical part of the UConn offense.

Offensive line. UConn is losing its two best linemen in Moe Petrus and Mike Ryan. Of the 16 linemen currently listed on the roster, seven are juniors or seniors. Linemen generally take a redshirt season, so it never hurts to sign more to be able to restock.

Louisville

Linebacker. The Cardinals are losing Dexter Heyman and have a lot of juniors and seniors on their roster at this position. It is no surprise, then, that three of the top players coming in are linebackers -- Keith Brown and James Burgess are already enrolled; four-star recruit Nick Dawson has given a commitment.

Offensive line. Louisville has young players here, but not much depth, as evidenced this season when several true freshmen were forced to play much earlier than anticipated. It never hurts to build depth here, and the Cardinals have gotten a huge commit from four-star guard Abraham Garcia out of Miami.

Running back. This was an area the Cardinals struggled in this season, having to move quarterback Dominique Brown to the position. Victor Anderson is gone, and this team could really used another back to carry the load.

Pitt

Quarterback. This one is pretty self explanatory if you watched Tino Sunseri play. Mark Myers and Trey Anderson are also on the roster, but the Panthers are in definite need here -- which is why so many fans are looking forward to commit Chad Voytik coming to town.

Linebacker. This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers, who lose their best player in Max Gruder. There are some young players with talent in Todd Thomas and Ejuan Price, but this position could definitely use an upgrade.

Receiver. The play of the offense was disappointing this season, and that includes the receivers. Pitt could use some players to stretch the field. Ronald Jones was a start this season. But when you consider that Cameron Saddler, Mike Shanahan and Devin Street will all be upperclassmen in 2012, this is a definite area of need.

Rutgers

Receiver. Mohamed Sanu is gone, and Mark Harrison is a senior to be. There is plenty of young talent, but there is a reason Rutgers has commitments from four athletes. This gives the Scarlet Knights the flexibility to try them at receiver or running back, another area of need.

Running back. Once Savon Huggins got hurt this year, Rutgers had Jawan Jamison and Jeremy Deering at running back and that was about it. Depth has to be developed here.

Offensive line. Strides have absolutely been made at this position, but coach Greg Schiano likes to reiterate that the Scarlet Knights aren't going to pull themselves out of the hole they were in overnight. They need another solid draft class at this position to keep building.

USF

Secondary. Injuries and inconsistent play this season showed the Bulls really lacked some depth and need some immediate help in this area, which is why they signed junior college cornerbacks Fidel Montgomery and Josh Brown. One of their top four-star commitments is cornerback Chris Bivins.

Quarterback. Beyond B.J. Daniels, a senior in 2012, the Bulls have Bobby Eveld and Matt Floyd as the two heirs to take over. Eveld has been less than impressive, and we don't know much about Floyd. The Bulls would be served to get another quarterback in as they prepare for the future.

Running back. Darrell Scott is gone, and the Bulls are really in need of a game breaker at this position. Demetris Murray is going to be a senior, and nobody else really has stepped up at the position. Depth has to be built here, because USF goes into spring practice with four running backs on the roster.

Syracuse

Defensive line. The Orange are losing Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich and could really used some difference-makers up front who can help get after the quarterback. Depth is an issue here. One of their big commitments so far has been defensive end Josh Manley out of Georgia.

Secondary. This was one of the weakest parts of the team and now the Orange lose Phillip Thomas and Kevyn Scott, and there was a lack of depth when injuries hit this position in 2011. Brooklyn prep safety Wayne Morgan would be a huge get to add to this unit.

Receiver. Alec Lemon is a senior, Van Chew is gone and who knows what happens with Marcus Sales. The bottom line is the Orange are in major need of a game-changer to turn 15-yard passes into 40-yard receptions.

West Virginia

Quarterback. Geno Smith is a rising senior and after him it is crickets in the form of one player behind him in Paul Millard. So consider this need majorly filled with Ford Childress, ranked No. 139 on the ESPNU 150.

Offensive line. The most inconsistent part of the team in 2011, West Virginia has a major need here. The Mountaineers struggled so badly here they started converted defensive lineman Curtis Feigt late in the season. Don Barclay is gone, and Joe Madsen, Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins are all upperclassmen.

Defensive line. Julian Miller, Josh Taylor and Bruce Irvin are gone, and there are depth concerns here. West Virginia has four commitments from defensive linemen already.
It is time to rank the Big East wide receivers. There is plenty of talent at this position, so let's see how the list shakes out.

1. Tavon Austin, West Virginia. If I am going with him as "NEXT" in the Big East, then he is going to be ranked No. 1. Now that he is going into his second year as a receiver, he feels totally at ease with his role and should have a monster year with Dana Holgorsen in charge.

[+] EnlargeMark Harrison
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonMark Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
2. Mark Harrison, Rutgers. I like Harrison because he seems to have the complete package. He is big (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), he is fast (4.38 speed) and he is a go-to guy (829 yards, 9 touchdowns last season). With a more focused offensive system in place, he should be even better in 2011.

3. D.J. Woods, Cincinnati. Though Woods was second in the league in receiving last season (898 yards), he could be overshadowed by some of the young talent the Bearcats have, including Kenbrell Thompkins, Shaq Washington and Anthony McClung. Still, Woods is the leading returning receiver in the league.

4. Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers. Sanu fought through an injury-plagued season in 2010, but when healthy he is one of the more dynamic players in the league. You have to love the size and versatility of Rutgers' receivers.

5. Mike Shanahan, Pitt. Shanahan should be the direct beneficiary of Jon Baldwin leaving and the new high-flying offense coming to the Panthers. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Shanahan is more of a possession-type receiver but he definitely is one of the most valuable pieces of this offense.

6. Stedman Bailey, West Virginia. Look for his numbers to increase in the Holgorsen offense. He should form a nice one-two combo with Austin in Morgantown. Bailey has terrific hands and catches everything that comes his way.

7. Van Chew, Syracuse. Chew leads a Syracuse crew that returns its top three receivers from last season. He may be underrated because the Orange are not known for their huge passing numbers, but look for them to work on the deep ball more this season.

8. Devin Street, Pitt. Purely based on potential here in the new Todd Graham offense. Street is a big-time deep threat. If Tino Sunseri can get him the ball and make explosive big plays, Street will be among the best in the league.

9. Josh Bellamy, Louisville. Receiver is a big question for the Cardinals, but with Bellamy returning, he should be the go-to player for Teddy Bridgewater and Will Stein. He has the size (6-foot, 206 pounds) to make plays and, now that he is going into his second year in the offense, should be much improved.

10. Marcus Sales, Syracuse. Sales really seemed to turn a corner this spring with Chew out. The two make a good tandem for the Orange, and he should have better numbers this season.

Previous player rankings:
We continue our team position rankings today with receiver. This is an area of great potential for plenty of teams around the league, especially with some of the high-octane offenses that we are going to see. Only three teams return their leading receiver from last season. The overriding theme seems to be this: there is a lot of talent, but much of it is unproven. So how are these receivers going to step up?

To make these rankings, I considered returning starters, accolades for returning starters, depth and potential.

[+] EnlargeMark Harrison
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonMark Harrison caught 44 passes for 829 yards and 9 touchdowns last season.
1. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have proven talent and depth at this position, putting them at the top spot in these rankings. When healthy, Mark Harrison and Mohamed Sanu form one of the top 1-2 punches in the entire league. Add in Brandon Coleman, who had an outstanding spring, along with Tim Wright returning from injury and the top four looks as solid as it gets. Let's not forget incoming speedsters Miles Shuler and Tejay Johnson, who have the potential to play as well.

2. West Virginia. The Mountaineers have Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and a whole bunch of questions at the position. But with the new offense Dana Holgorsen is bringing in, other receivers have a chance to be more effective. Austin is about as close as you can come to a surefire first-team All-Big East player. Ryan Nehlen had a nice spring and could be the surprise of the season. So could Tyler Urban, a converted tight end. How will Brad Starks do after shoulder surgery? Will Ivan McCartney live up to his potential? There is talent here and great potential if everybody lives up to expectations.

3. Cincinnati. The Bearcats are stocked with talent, but many of these skill players have got to gain experience and fast with Armon Binns, Marcus Barnett, Vidal Hazelton and Ben Guidugli gone. D.J. Woods is expected to be a first-team All-Big East selection. But beyond he and Anthony McClung, you have got young guys -- junior college transfers Kenbrell Thompkins and Damon Julian, redshirt freshman Dyjuan Lewis, freshmen Shaq Washington, Chris Moore, Alex Chisum and Max Morrison. Thompkins showed great promise in the spring.

4. Pittsburgh. The Panthers lose their leading receiver in Jon Baldwin, but the duo of Mike Shanahan and Devin Street could each be 1,000-yard receivers. Behind them, though, there are some questions and inexperience. Junior Cameron Saddler is going to have to step up. Redshirt freshmen Salath Williams, Drew Carswell, junior college transfer Josh Brinson and true freshman Justin Jackson are all young but have a chance to be big contributors. Pitt also is waiting to hear whether UNC transfer Brendon Felder will have his petition for immediate eligibility granted.

5. Syracuse. The Orange have plenty of solid returning receivers in Van Chew, Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon but what this team is really lacking is big-play potential. In five games last season, Syracuse failed to complete a pass that went longer than 30 yards. In fact, Ryan Nassib averaged 6.5 yards per pass attempt. A healthy Jarrod West could help those numbers improve. Dorian Graham has to work on his hands, too.

6. USF. The Bulls lose leading receiver Dontavia Bogan, but they return injured players Sterling Griffin and A.J. Love to the mix, which is going to be huge. Lindsey Lamar and Evan Landi also return, along with Terrence Mitchell, Joel Miller and Faron Hornes. Deonte Welch had a nice spring game and is listed as a backup behind Landi. True freshman Andre Davis has the potential to contribute as well. The Bulls have plenty of depth here but there are still some questions about this group, especially with Griffin and Love coming off injuries.

7. Louisville. The Cardinals lose their top two receivers, and have got to figure out a way to make big plays and stretch the field with a young group. Josh Bellamy appears to be the go-to man headed into 2011, and much is going to be expected of Andrell Smith and Michaelee Harris. Both are coming off injuries and were unable to practice in the spring. True freshmen are most likely going to be relied upon, giving Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker and opportunity to play.

8. Connecticut. A playmaker has got to emerge from this group to help out whoever is going to be playing quarterback. The Huskies lost leading receiver Mike Smith because of academics. Kashif Moore, Ryan Griffin and Isiah Moore return but UConn is going to need some of its redshirt freshmen like Geremy Davis and Tebucky Jones Jr. to step up. The Huskies are not preparing to run the spread, so the potential for a 1,000-yard receiver in this group is low.

Previous rankings:
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's easy to look at Ryan Nassib and pick him apart for what he is not.

The Syracuse quarterback is not a Donovan McNabb-level athlete. His right arm is not classified as long-range artillery. There's very little about him that's flashy.

That can be tough to take for fans who want their quarterbacks to be superstars. So it's no surprise that a substantial portion of Orange backers questioned whether or not Nassib was the right guy for the future, who wondered if he might be overtaken this spring by one of three other quarterbacks vying for the job.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse's Ryan Nassib
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesRyan Nassib passed completed 13 of 21 passes for 239 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Nassib, though, shut down that talk very early in spring camp. And he reminded everyone why there is much to like about what he is.

The fourth-year junior is a smart, steady leader who understands the offense very well. He's a calming presence. He doesn't make many big mistakes.

"He has an excellent knowledge of what we're trying to do," head coach Doug Marrone said.

Marrone, however, cautions that Nassib "hasn't arrived yet." So let's talk about what Nassib can be.

He is, after all, just entering his first year of starting, as his debut season was spent caddying for Greg Paulus. He threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas State, proving that he could indeed put up big stats and stretch the field.

"That gave me confidence in myself and the team," he said. "It showed what we can do when we're playing at peak level. It was a great launching point to the winter."

Nassib set the Syracuse single-season record for completions with 202 in 2010 and had a very respectable 19-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Why can't he continue to improve on those numbers?

"I really see him growing into his own," running back Antwon Bailey said. "He has had an unbelievable sense of confidence this spring, making checks and looking like he's in midseason form. I'm excited to see how he'll do this year."

There were fair criticisms of Nassib's play last year. Too often, he and the offense stalled after the defense put them in good positions, and his completion percentage (56.4) was too low. Those are things he is working on now.

"I definitely wished I'd played a little better in certain situations," he said. "I definitely needed to improve my completion percentages, and I'm focusing on getting more easy completions and taking what the defense gives you. I made some rookie mistakes."

Nassib and the passing game were also hamstrung by injuries at receiver, especially late in the year. He had little to work with once Van Chew and Alec Lemon got banged up until Marcus Sales emerged in the bowl game. Syracuse should have more depth and weapons at wideout this year, with Sales continuing his growth, Chew and Lemon back and emerging playmakers like Dorian Graham and Jarrod West. That's giving Nassib more confidence to let loose.

"Some of the passes he's made this year, he didn't make last year," Sales said. "He's trying to squeeze the ball into little holes."

Ultimately, Nassib doesn't have to be an All-American for Syracuse to succeed. He just needs to make the right decisions, put the ball in the right spots and avoid turnovers for a team still based on defense and running the ball. The more he does well, the less people will think about what he is not.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's the final week of spring practice, and Doug Marrone's office is littered with, of all things, fabric samples.

[+] EnlargeDoug Marrone
Andrew Weber/US PresswireSyracuse coach Doug Marrone plans to build on last season's 8-5 record.
The Syracuse head coach's quarters are due for a refurbishing, with new furniture and carpet on the way. Marrone will devote more attention to it after spring drills end. If his track record serves as an indication, we should trust his instincts when it comes to remodeling.

Before the 2009 season, Marrone took over a proud Orange program that had fallen into a crater with no foreseeable way out. The team hadn't gone to a bowl game since 2004 and hadn't posted a winning season since 2001. But after a 4-8 first season showed signs of progress, Marrone's second Syracuse team went 8-5 last season, including a victory in the inaugural New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Kansas State.

Players who had been ashamed to wear Orange football gear around campus are now showing off their Pinstripe Bowl jackets that arrived this month.

"There's definitely a different vibe around campus now," defensive end Chandler Jones said. "You'll be in class, and a teacher will stop her own lecture to talk about the game. It's great to get that feeling of being a champion again."

That also meant that this spring, Marrone and his players had to begin dealing with something that's been missing around these parts for nearly a decade: preseason expectations.

The Orange had the advantage last season of sneaking up on some Big East opponents who had beaten them year after year. No more. There's a good chance they will be picked among the favorites to win the league in 2011. Do they have the same hunger that marked last season's team?

"Expectations change everything," running back Antwon Bailey said. "Not just on the outside but on the inside, too. You've got to work harder, spend more time in the film room. You've got to change your mindset."

Marrone went about changing the mindset around the program from the beginning. The former Orange offensive lineman couldn't stand what had happened to his alma mater's team and knew his first mission was to erase the negative attitude that hovered over everything. So rather than pushing aside the upperclassmen who had been stained by losing, he relied heavily on them to turn things around. Last season's team had strong senior leaders like top tacklers Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith, leading rusher Delone Carter, center Ryan Bartholomew and cornerbacks Da'Mon Merkerson and Mike Holmes.

"It was important for me to come in and win with the players who were here to gain some interest in the program and gain some momentum," he said. "That leads to a year now where we have a little bit of a transition year. We have some positions to fill."

But compared to Marrone's first two seasons, the roster looks healthy and full. Syracuse was able to hold a spring game featuring two full teams for the first time in years this month. Marrone struggled to find enough bodies just to practice at times his first two seasons because of injuries and attrition. Between the winter of 2009 and the spring of 2010, 28 players left the program -- many of them unable to handle Marrone's no-nonsense policies.

A culture shock? You bet. Marrone requires his players to wear jackets and ties after games. During his first season, team leaders requested that someone come in and teach everyone proper knot-tying techniques. Only four players knew how to tie a tie, and it took them so long to help their teammates that the Orange were barely making the postgame bus.

"It definitely seemed strict at first," receiver Marcus Sales said. "But if you want to win, you've got to buy into the program and deal with some things you don't want to deal with sometimes."

These days, it's hard to find a Syracuse player who doesn't fully embrace everything Marrone espouses. Winning will convince most doubters.

Getting a program back on track is difficult. Reaching the next level is often even harder.

Can the Orange get back to regularly winning nine and 10 games a season, as they did in the late 1980s and '90s? After all, their wins included Colgate, Maine and Akron last season, they benefited from a down year in the Big East and they received a favorable late call in the bowl game to slip by Kansas State. On the other hand, if they would have won just one of their final two league home games, they would have claimed at least a share of the Big East title.

"That's an opportunity that we lost, and we can't do that again," Marrone said.

To win more, Syracuse is trying to remember how it stopped losing. Marrone has talked to them about avoiding complacency and instituted more competitive challenges this preseason to keep the players hungry. The upperclassmen are wary of backsliding now that they've dug themselves out of the hole.

"It's definitely a different beast when you're not counted out week in and week out," quarterback Ryan Nassib said. "Are we confident or are we overconfident? The guys who have been there, who went through those 4-8 seasons, know winning isn't easy. It was definitely a grind to get to that season we had last year."

Marrone rejects terms like "rebuilt" or "retooled" for the Orange. He sees it as a program with a lot of tradition that simply needed some guidance. Yet there's no doubt his remodeling fixed up a real eyesore.

The next job is finding the right finishing touches.

Thoughts from Syracuse practice

April, 12, 2011
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Some observations after attending Syracuse's 13th practice of the spring on Tuesday (if there are any typos, it's because I spilled Dinosaur Bar-B-Que sauce on my keyboard):

  • With the spring game on tap Saturday, the Orange did quite a bit of scrimmage work in a somewhat-abbreviated practice. The defense had the upper hand at last weekend's scrimmage and kept that going on Tuesday. The offense did well in some short-yardage work, but the defense dominated in goal-line and two-minute drills. That's notable, given that the offense returns far more starters than its relatively young counterparts on the other side of the ball. Doug Marrone said the offense had "some lingering bad taste" from Saturday's performance.
  • Of course, the offense might have had a better day if Marcus Sales had caught a ball that deflected off his hands on fourth-and-10 from about midfield in the two-minute work. Sales said afterward that he would have caught that in a game. And the best news, at least for the offense, is that he was able to get behind the defense in such an obvious passing situation.
  • Sales looked good the rest of the practice and seems to be carrying over his big Pinstripe Bowl performance. The receivers have a little more depth with him, Alec Lemon and Van Chew, who isn't fully healthy yet. Jarrod West looks like he can be a solid possession receiver. Dorian Graham is fast but still has trouble catching the ball.
  • You don't hear much anymore about a quarterback competition. Ryan Nassib is the obvious starter and showed some nice skill in a couple of play-action bootleg passes to tight end Nick Provo. Nassib probably isn't going to wow you, but he's solid and there's no one really pushing him for playing time right now. Charley Loeb wold be the backup if the season started today.
  • Antwon Bailey showed some nice moves as Syracuse really focused on running the ball during most of the scrimmage portions. He got around the corner a couple of times and flashed good shiftiness between the tackles. I have questioned whether or not the 5-foot-8 Bailey could hold up as an every-down back, but hey, Noel Devine and Dion Lewis have done it in this league. Prince-Tyson Gulley is also coming on. He had maybe the play of the day by the offense when he juked Jeremi Wilkes out of his shoes on a pitch play.
  • True freshman Dyshawn Davis is currently running first-string at linebacker. Coach Dan Conley spent time giving Davis a lot of extra instruction. Syracuse could be awfully young at linebacker with Davis and true sophomore Marquis Spruill in the middle. Senior Dan Vaughan is trying to hold on to a starting job at the other spot and would give the Orange some experience.
  • The other big question mark on defense is at the interior line spots. Cory Boatman (256 pounds) and Jay Bromley (273) were manning that position with the first unit on Tuesday. While they had success against a veteran line, they are still undersized for those spots. Marrone said the defensive tackle position probably would be filled by committee this season.
  • Overall thoughts: The Orange are well-stocked on the offensive line, at defensive end and at safety and will have a veteran quarterback and some potential playmakers at running back. They will need the young guys at linebacker and defensive tackle to really come on, and for the passing game to improve over last year. But it's not unrealistic to consider them a Big East contender in 2011.

Notes from weekend scrimmages

April, 4, 2011
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Spring practice was in full bloom over the weekend, and you know what that means: scrimmages! Here are some notes on the teams that faced off against themselves on Saturday.

Connecticut

The Huskies didn't hold anything back, and that sometimes was problematic. Linebacker Sio Moore delivered a big hit on quarterback Michael Nebrich and had to be reminded by Paul Pasqualoni that they are, in fact, still teammates.

The defense dominated for most of the scrimmage, and it's no surprise that side of the ball would be ahead of the offense, given the number of returning defensive starters. Quarterback Scott McCummings, who has reportedly had a good spring, fumbled and threw an interception on Saturday. Mike Box got the first reps of the scrimmage under center.

"I thought there was some good give and take,” Pasqualoni said. “I thought there was real, real good competition on both sides of the ball.”

Louisville

Held back a little by injuries this spring, the Cardinals held their first scrimmage on Saturday, a 150-minute, 95-play, hard-hitting affair.

According to the official recap, Will Stein threw two touchdown passes to Josh Chichester, for 16 and 59 yards. Receiver Josh Bellamy also had a big day. Shenard Holton and Marcus Smith each had interceptions, while Randy Salmon and Dexter Heyman were very active on defense.

"It's hard to really see what we have going on out there because we have so many guys injured," coach Charlie Strong said. "We have a lot of guys playing who haven't played much, but it's good that we are starting to build some depth. I was pleased with the effort and I thought there was a lot of good hitting.

Pittsburgh

Only a portion of the scrimmage was open to the media, but the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Buddy Jackson took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. The cornerback was only recently given a shot to return kicks.

Former guard Chris Jacobson is working at center and had some trouble with shotgun snaps. That will be key for the Panthers, who will be in the shotgun almost exclusively in their new offense. The newspaper also singled out defensive end Bryan Murphy as a spring standout so far.

Syracuse

The offense unleashed some big-play potential in the Orange's 84-play scrimmage. Big plays included a 75-yard pass from Ryan Nassib to Alec Lemon, a 64-yard carry by Antwon Bailey, a 70-yard dash by Prince-Tyson Gulley and a 54-yard pass from Nassib to Marcus Sales. Nassib was 7-of-12 for 192 yards.

But the offense couldn't keep the momentum after three straight scores, turning the ball over and failing to reach the end zone the rest of the day. Coach Doug Marrone said he didn't like the way the defense came out to start the scrimmage, but at least it responded. He singled out linebackers Dan Vaughan and Marquis Spruill and safety Phillip Thomas for praise on that side of the ball.

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